Views from Auckland
This year, traditional Pacific art and design have hit the headlines in the media for good reasons and bad. While good is of course good, bad is good too – there’s no publicity that’s bad publicity; bad news is good news so long as you are in the news, as any astute politician will tell you.
Let’s start with the ‘good’ good news. Pacific art blazed into the world’s consciousness earlier this year with the brilliant new insignia on Fiji’s rebranded national airline. Bold, unconventional and distinctive, the dark brown traditional Masi motifs on the tails of the airline’s fleet stand out expressively among blue and red aircraft tails – conventional airline colours – at busy airports.
The airline has done its storytelling around the new designs rather well, too: it has explained every motif and its significance and focused on the traditional indigenous artist and her art. The new insignia have been well noticed, discussed and appreciated in branding circles even outside the aviation industry. It is undoubtedly a success story and a great one at that – not just for Fijian traditional art but also for that of the rest of the Pacific.
Now, for the ‘bad’ good news: last month international brands and fashion designers made global headlines for not acknowledging the source of some of their recent design themes as being inspired by the islands’ traditional indigenous art. It involved both Fijian and Samoan motifs.
In one instance, a New York fashion designer used iTaukei Masi or Tapa motifs on her dress and passed it off as being Aztec inspired. When Pacific art experts blew the whistle on her bluff, the designer acknowledged the motifs as being of Fijian origin and apologised on her website.
In another development, global footwear giant Nike had to acknowledge its boot was on the wrong leg. It was forced to pull a line of sportswear that was based on Samoan designs after an outcry that the designs were culturally insensitive. The women’s running tights, bodysuit, and sports bra in the Nike Pro Tattoo Tech line had a pattern based on Samoan tattoos called Pe’a, which are traditionally reserved for men. “It’s a pity they didn’t research it properly by making it for women. Bad move,” said Oceania Media publisher and Editor of Spasifik magazine, Innes Logan. “The Pacific community should be outraged when a global company attempts to profit from their art and motifs.”
This ‘bad’ news, however, has shone the spotlight on Pacific indigenous and traditional art ever so brightly, that the design world is bound to sit up and take notice – and more potential violations could well follow. What’s in the limelight is always copied. The success and high visibility of the new Fiji Airways insignia and such news items of controversies involving big brands and names adds tremendous value, though quite intangible, to a distinctive design motif that can be traced to an authentic source.
Designers are perpetually on the look out for new motifs and try to jump on a bandwagon as soon as they get the slightest whiff of its popularity. Last year’s global fear of an apocalypse created by the Mayan calendar which supposedly predicted the end of the world on December 21, brought the world’s attention on all things Mayan and much else that came from the Middle and South American region. Among the motifs that took off last year in the fashion world established a new trend in ‘Aztec’ designs – something that the New York designer tried to pass off Fijian Masi motifs as last month.
Hard legal slog
American Indian indigenous groups have protested against what they consider purloining of their traditional designs with neither acknowledgement nor a monetary benefit. But any legal action is mired in all sorts of difficulties ranging from proving ownership, putting a value to the art form, loopholes in the copyright laws (a certain number of changes from the original design can deem a new design ‘original’, even if it is reminiscent of a traditional style). Logan also points to the fact that “So many from that community (whether it be elders, chiefs, artists, groups) want the right to claim ownership with the possibility of financial compensation.”
“It stinks of cultural ignorance and arrogance. It suggests badly run business. These days there is no excuse for not researching the significance of any cultural motifs,” says Marilyn Kohlhase, New Zealand based Director of Akateretere Arts and cofounder of the former Okaioceanikart Gallery, the world’s first Pan-Pacific art gallery. She is unsparing in her criticism of the copyists, calling their acts “theft” of cultural treasures. She is all for the global media reporting the “crime.”
How could indigenous cultures respond? “Regional bodies could use more of our own indigenous experts to educate themselves and others of the sacred value of our cultures and their economic potential with respectful and lawful use of our motifs,” says Kohlhase. This is exactly what artist Florence Jankae, acknowledged champion of the traditional Bilum craft from Papua New Guinea told me during the third annual Maketi Ples event in Sydney earlier this year.
Though the Goroka Women Bilum Weavers Association collaborates with Australian fashion icon Alistair Trung to create a range of accessories with Bilum motifs that sell in Australia, Jankae is wary of going international without the safeguards in place. “The government needs to do more in protecting our copyright on traditional design,” she said. She is averse to exposing some of rare designs until such protection is put in place.
So is there anything that can be done to bring violators to book other than Julian Assange and Edward Snowden style whistleblowing? Not really. And even if avenues were to be explored, the sheer scale and international nature of the problems would put costs beyond the pale of most indigenous groups even if they were organised like corporates. Though the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Human Rights has clauses to protect indigenous arts and crafts, defending it would be eye wateringly expensive to most indigenous groups.
But in this day and age of a highly networked world, naming and shaming is the name of the game. And it is effective, as was seen in last month’s Fijian and Samoan examples.
It is encouraging to note that the art is flourishing and evolving in PNG. In this time of greater mobility by air and land and sea, there is a new fusion of patterns, materials and techniques emerging in bilum work. As the art of bilum is being reinterpreted by a new generation of creators, materials such as wool and synthetic fibres have been introduced into the bilum making process.
Bilum artist and acknowledged champion of the traditional craft Florence Jankae from Papua New Guinea, Some of Ms Jankae’s art has now found its way into the collection of the Australian Museum in Sydney, which has a considerable body of traditional and indigenous Pacific art.
One of the significant outcomes of the show is Australian fashion icon Alistair Trung collaborating with the Goroka Women Bilum Weavers Association in Papua New Guinea to create a range of accessories with traditional and contemporary Bilum motifs that the fashion designer will sell through his shops across Australia.
According to the television station, the fashion giant issued a statement that read, “The Nike tattoo tech collection was inspired by tattoo graphics. We apologise to anyone who views this design as insensitive to any specific culture. No offense was intended.”
First appeared in Islands Business, September 2013